The History of Medicine: Ancient Egypt

Modern Western medicne finds its roots in ancient Egypt. Two 3500 old papyruses are some of the first medical texts - covering magic, herbal remedies, surgery, prosthetics and even psychiatry.

Traditionally, the story of Western medicine begins in ancient Greece with Hippocrates - who is recognized as its founding father. However, scholars agree that the Western medicine’s roots predate history – with one historical stream leading back to the cradle of civilization on the banks of the Nile River in ancient Egypt.

And though the origins of its medicine are lost in pre-history, two fascinating documents emerged in the 19th century that demonstrates to what extent and how sophisticated the art of medicine became in ancient Egypt.

Edwin Smith acquired both documents from dealers in the 1860s. The document known as the Ebers Papyrus dates from 1500 BC. It contains some 700 magical formulas and remedies to cure a huge range of afflictions. And even though it contains many incantations meant to turn away disease-causing demons, there still are many empirical observations and herbal remedies that demonstarte medical effiacy today. The scroll covers everything from crocodille bites to treatments for tumors, skin and stomach disorders to ear, nose and throat problems, dentisry to burns and flesh wounds. It goes on to cover prgenancy, birth control and fertility.

The Ebers Papyrus also provides a sophisticated description of the heart and circulatory system. It even explores mental and physciatric conditions.

The other major document is known as the Edwin Smith Papyrus and is an ancient surgical guide. Though it predates the Ebers papyrus by a thousand years, it is a far more rational document devoid of religious and spiritual spells and remedies.

This papyrus provides a systematic guide to various medical problems and their surgical interventions. The papyrus addresses each medical issue with a description of symptoms, followed by diagnosis and treatment options, offering extensive and detailed discussions on techniques and procedures.

Authorship of the work is sometimes attributed to Imhotep, the first historically documented medical practioner. A counselor to the Third Dynasty Pharaoh Dsojer, he was also a scientist, engineer and court counselor - and was eventually deified in his on right.

Egyptian physicians were highly respected all over the ancient world for thousands of years. Homer regarded them as the best in his time. Egyptian physicians were called to the courts of Persian emperors and other Eastern potentates; and only in the sixth century B.C. were they replaced by Greek physicians. Beyond the psychotherapeutic values of magic and religion, Egyptian physicians made solid advances in observation and rational treatment and offered the most effective medical treatment for over 2500 years.


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